I was raised in a family that processed most of the meat we ate, so when I began hunting deer, it was second nature to process them myself. It’s satisfying to sit down to a meal of venison that I’ve harvested, processed, aged, and packaged, and often roasted, smoked, or grilled myself.
Many hunters share the same sentiment, and choose to field-dress and/or field-process their own animals as well. Field-dressing involves a hunter removing only the internal organs in the field and then bringing the carcass home to process, or taking it to a butcher. However, when you process the entire deer in the field, it gives you the option to bring home only the parts your family will use while the remaining parts are left to feed scavengers and nourish the soil where the deer lived and died. Plus, disease-carrying parasites, such as ticks, remain in the field, or are bagged and frozen with the hide prior to tanning. And it’s often easier to pack out a deer in two or three loads rather than to haul the entire carcass home.
Before field-processing a deer, read up on your local wildlife laws, and take care to obey them. If you plan to mount the head and antlers, get skinning instructions from a taxidermist. If you’re interested in tanning the hide yourself, see “How to Tan A Deer Hide” in our November/December 2017 issue.
While in the field, remember that it’s essential to cool the carcass quickly to reduce bacterial spoilage. This helps ensure that you get the best quality meat. Removing the organs allows body heat to escape, and skinning lets body heat dissipate even faster, so don’t put off processing any longer than absolutely necessary.
While processing, it’s important to avoid contaminating the meat with the tarsal glands and the contents of the digestive or waste organs. Tarsal glands are scent glands located on the insides of the back legs, at the hocks. The glands generate an oily, musky-smelling liquid that harbors bacteria and creates an odor unique to each deer. Take extra care to prevent the tarsal glands from touching the meat while processing; the smelly, bacteria-laden liquid will ruin whatever it comes in contact with. To avoid contamination, use one knife for cutting organs and any parts you aren’t going to eat, and a separate knife for cutting meat. Wear food-processing gloves, and change them after handling the organs.
1. Find a gently sloped piece of ground and position the deer on its back with the head on the uphill side of the slope. If you have a buck or male, cut the skin that holds the sex organs to the body. Locate the urethra (the tube that carries urine), and tie it off with cotton string to prevent urine from leaking out of the bladder. Remove the sex organs, if it’s legal to do so in your area.
2. No matter the sex of the deer, make a small cut through the hide and abdominal muscle where the pelvis meets the body cavity. Using a gut hook, extend this cut up the middle of the belly to the sternum. The intestines will protrude; push them back into the body cavity to avoid accidentally cutting them.
3. With a bone saw, open the chest cavity by cutting up the middle of the sternum, but be careful not to saw too deep or you’ll puncture the stomach or liver. When finished, prop the chest cavity open with a stick.
4. Next, locate the diaphragm; it’s the thin muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavity at the base of the rib cage. Cut the diaphragm close to the wall of the body cavity so it’s completely detached.
5. In the chest cavity, locate the esophagus, which is the soft, smooth tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Tie it off near the stomach, and cut it above the tie on the head side. Locate the trachea (the rigid, ribbed tube that connects the throat to the lungs), and cut it above the lungs.
6. Locate where the large intestine enters the pelvis. Gently pinch the large intestine and move any feces aside a couple of inches. Tie the large intestine on both the left and right side of this feces-free zone, and then cut the large intestine between the ties.
7. Next, you’ll want to locate the bladder. This sack, about the size of a tennis ball, is located near the pelvis. If it contains urine, tie off the two small tubes that lead to the kidneys and the urethra on the downstream side of the bladder.
8. Cut any connective tissue holding the organs to the inside of the body.
9. If you plan to eat or use any of the organs, bag and label them as you remove them from the body. To remove the heart, cut the pericardium (the sack that holds the heart) and then cut any blood vessels holding the heart in place. If you want the liver, first locate and remove the gallbladder, taking care not to puncture it in the process. The gallbladder is the yellow-green sack located in one of the liver lobes. The intestines can be used for sausage casings; tie them off before removing them from the body cavity. To remove the kidneys, cut the tubes on the upstream (kidney) side of the tie to avoid urine leaking from the bladder.
10. Once you’ve removed and bagged the organs you want, remove the remaining organs and leave them for scavengers. Start in the chest cavity and, with one long pull, slide the organs out and onto the ground. Drain any pooled blood by lifting the front legs.
While processing is possible on the ground, it’s easier to skin and debone a hanging carcass. Hanging the carcass will also keep the meat cleaner.
11. Choose a tree that’s large enough to support the carcass weight, typically more than 10 inches in diameter, with a horizontal limb 8 to 12 feet off the ground.
12. Insert the hooks of a gambrel into the tendons at the hocks on the rear legs, and hoist the carcass off the ground until the back legs are eye level.
Skinning: Skinning is more pulling than cutting. Only use a knife where necessary to open the hide or cut tough connective tissue that holds the hide to the body. It’s normal for a thin layer of muscle to peel off with the hide in places.
13. Begin at the back legs and cut the hide around the hocks. Then, make a single long cut along the back of the leg to the base of the tail. Loosen the hide along these cuts, and then pull the hide from each back leg toward the middle of the back. Cut around the anus, and loosen the skin around the tail. Cut through the tailbone, and then pull the hide from the carcass toward the front legs.
14. Cut the hide around each front leg at the wrist. Next, cut the hide along the underside of the front legs to the cut at the chest cavity. Cut the hide on the underside of the neck by extending the chest cavity cut to the throat. Separate the hide from the legs, and then pull it over the shoulders and up the neck to the base of the skull. Cut around the hide at the base of the head, and free the hide from the carcass.
Deboning: I prefer to break down a carcass in the following order. Note that if you live in an area where insects are still alive during deer season, you’ll need to protect the meat with cheesecloth or carcass bags. Also, as you’re cutting meat from the shanks and neck, you’ll see a shiny covering of tough material on the muscles; this is “silverskin,” or natural sinew. Remove it from the meat. Once dried, silverskin makes a great thread for sewing leather. Along the backstraps is a good place to get a long, continuous strip.
15. To keep the meat from becoming contaminated with dirt and leaves, lay a tarp or dropcloth on the ground next to the carcass to stage the cuts of meat. (If you aren’t yet familiar with the different cuts, use a permanent marker to label the cuts on the tarp so there’s no confusion.) If you harvested the deer with a firearm, discard the meat from around the bullet wound. Before you process the meat adjacent to the wound, check for bullet fragments and discard any pieces that contain fragments.
16 a-b. Remove the front legs. To do so, pull a leg away from the body and cut the connective tissue and muscle just deep enough to remove the leg and shoulder from the carcass. Rotate the leg to see where the shoulder blade connects to the carcass, and work slowly to make the cuts. Place both legs on the tarp; you’ll remove the meat from them later.
17 a-b. Next, remove the backstraps, which make great steaks and roasts. These long, round muscles run along each side of the backbone from just in front of the pelvis to the neck. One side of the backstrap is positioned next to the backbone, and the bottom side sits next to the ribs. Make the first incision along the length of the backbone until you feel the ribs. Next, gently roll the muscle, and cut it away from the ribs until the muscle is free from the carcass.
18. Remove the tenderloins next. They’re the two long, round muscles inside the body cavity along each side of the backbone from just in front of the pelvis to near the diaphragm. Cut and peel them away from the carcass. Use them for steaks, kebab medallions, and roasts.
19. Next, remove the rump and rounds from the back legs and hips. To do so, pull one back leg away from the body, and locate where the hipbone and femur attach to the body. On the inside of the leg, cut through the muscle to the femur bone. Then, cut along the femur and expose it to the next joint, which will be the knee. Use your fingers and a knife to separate the muscle from around the entire length of the femur. Cut the meat at the knee joint so the only attachment is at the hip joint. Cradle the entire chunk of meat with one hand so it doesn’t fall on the ground, and cut it free from the carcass. Use the rounds and rump for roasts, steaks, and jerky.
20. Cut off the shanks from the calf area of the back legs. Remove the large, round muscle from the bone and place it on the tarp, then cut the smaller muscles from the bone. The rear shanks make great roasts, stew, canned meat, and burgers.
21. Remove each flank next. The flanks are the abdominal muscles on each side of the carcass that span from the ribs to the back legs. Cut along where the muscle attaches to the ribs and backbone.
22. Remove the thin strips of meat from between the ribs. Then, cut the meat away from the neck.
23. Go over the carcass and remove any remaining bits of muscle.
24. Once you’re finished with the carcass, fillet the meat from the front leg bones, which you removed in Step 16. Use the shoulder for stew, canned meat, jerky, and burgers, and use the rest of the front leg meat for burgers.
25. Once everything has been cut, package the individual cuts into zip-close bags, labeling the bags as you go. Put any remaining small pieces of meat into trim bags to use for stew, canned meat, or burgers.
26. Pack everything out. It usually takes two or three trips, and you should always take the best cuts — tenderloins, backstraps, rounds, and rump — on the first trip. When returning, approach the site with caution, especially if you live in an area with large predators.
27. Once home, it’ll be time to age, cut, and package your deer — a topic for a future article — and then sit down to a home-cooked meal of fresh venison.
When processing a deer in the field, the proper tools help to make things quick, smooth, and sanitary. Here’s what you’ll need to construct a basic field kit:
- Drop-point skinning knife
- Fillet knife
- Gut hook knife
- Small bone saw
- Block and tackle with cord
- Portable gambrel
- Food-processing gloves
- 1- and 2-gallon zip-close bags
- Large garbage bags
- Tarp or dropcloth
- Biodegradable cotton string
- Permanent marker
- Cheesecloth or carcass bags
Chronic Wasting Disease
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a contagious neurological disease that affects deer, elk, and moose. It’s believed to be caused by abnormal proteins called “prions” that infect the brain, causing symptoms that include drastic weight loss, stumbling, and listlessness. It’s always fatal.
There’s currently no evidence that CWD can infect humans, but it’s still important to take precautions before consuming your freshly harvested deer meat. Follow the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and have deer meat tested before eating it. Contact your state’s department of natural resources for CWD testing locations.
To slow the spread of CWD, some states restrict transporting deer from known CWD areas. Follow your local regulations.
Visit the CDC website for more information on chronic wasting disease.
Avid outdoorspeople, Dennis Biswell and his son Richard (shown in photos 13 & 17) have hunted together for more than 20 years.